A New Hampshire school district is being asked to amend its politics and practices after the superintendent demanded that the word “Christmas” in an announcement about a Christmas tree lighting be changed to “holiday.”
It’s unnecessary, inaccurate and even unconstitutional, according to a letter to the district from lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom.
“Simply put, using the word Christmas in a flyer advertising a Christmas tree lighting and the appearance of Santa Claus is only sensible and plainly not unconstitutional,” they wrote to officials in New Hampshire School Administrative Unit 29 in Keene, New Hampshire.
The situation developed when in the course of events for the approaching Christmas holiday, there was a flyer to be distributed through the school’s procedure for information about private events.
That forum was created by the district especially for “non-school programs offered by non-profit organizations” that are deemed “to have educational, recreational or social value to students.”
It requires a disclaimer that it is not a school event, and also demands that flyers are “secular.”
Nevertheless, for many years, “John Fletcher has been distributing flyers at Marlborough School to announce a beloved community Christmas tree lighting, complete with hot chocolate, donuts, gifts, and time with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Each year, the flyers he has distributed have been identical (except for the date of the event). This year, however, when Mr. Fletcher tried to distribute the flyers announcing the community event sponsored by the American Legion Family and the Monadnock Lions Club, he encountered resistance.”
The letter to the school board and Supt. Robert H. Malay noted that Malay insisted that the title “Annual Christmas Tree Lighting” must be changed to “Annual Holiday Tree Lightning.”
The district then issued a statement that the decision was prompted by concerns about the Establishment Clause.
“But the Establishment Clause requires no such thing,” the ADF letter said. “Courts have long recognized that ‘the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.’ As one federal court stated, ‘No arm of government may discriminate against religious speech when speech on other subjects is permitted in the same place at the same time,'” the letter said.
The decision and actions to censor “Christmas” “impermissibly target religious speech for censorship and constitute illegal viewpoint discrimination,” the letter explained.
“It is firmly established that school officials may not suppress private speech simply because it is religious or contains a religious perspective. Rather, the Constitution ‘affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any,'” the letter said.
It continued, “It is unconstitutional for public officials to deny private individuals the right to religious speech and expression by imposing on them a limitation intended for the government. … The flyers at issue here are private speech.”
Even if the speech were the school’s, it still would be constitutional, the letter explained.
“Calling Christmas trees what they are is not unconstitutional,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “But it is unconstitutional to censor private speech simply because it is religious in nature.”
“We are asking the district to amend its policies so that they no longer restrict religious expression in an unconstitutional manner,” said Tedesco. “Failure to do so is not only antithetical to our nation’s principles, but it also exposes the district to potential liability under federal law.”